Broadway : a cabaret and boot-legging drama of New York night-life

‘Broadway’ was regarded at the time as one of the best and slickest crime plays seen on the stage, laying bare the gangster racket in New York at the height of Prohibition in the mid 1920s. It was staged in both New York and London and was described as a thoroughly modern melodrama, although Theatre World insisted that the correct description, although a hybrid expression, was in fact a comedy drama.

The Programme cover for Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1927
The Programme cover for Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1927

‘Broadway’ was probably the best kind of American crook play, with speed, grip and probability and was written and directed by Phillip Dunning and George Abbott in three acts. It was originally staged at the Broadhurst Theatre New York on 16th September 1926 and ran for 603 performances until February 1928.

The London production, with an all American cast (that included Roy Lloyd who had appeared in the original New York show) was staged initially at the Strand Theatre on 22nd December 1926 and was then transferred to the Adelphi Theatre in early 1927, running for 252 performances.

Described as a cabaret and boot-legging drama of New York life, the action took place within two days in the private party room of the Paradise Night Club in New York. Typical of Broadway and its hectic night-life the show provided a cast of bootleggers, hijackers, detectives, butter and egg men, cabaret dancers, waiters and assorted punters.

The programme explained the setting for those unfamiliar with prohibition, bootlegging and the cabaret scenein New York: ‘The introduction of prohibition in the USA has called into being an enormous traffic in illicit liquor known as the ‘boot-legging’ industry. New York has been divided into areas under the control of separate gangs of boot-leggers and when these gangs trespass upon the territory of a rival gang, matters are settled by gang wars ad feuds of amazing ferocity, as neither party can have recourse to the law. The position is further complicated by the existence of roving bands of desperate men known as ‘hi-jackers’ who still illicit liquor from the boot-leggers themselves. In ‘Broadway’ one of these gang feuds flares up and pursues its course through the gaiety and bustle of the Paradise Night Club.’

A scene from Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1927
A scene from Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1927

The plot follows Roy Lane (played by Roy Lloyd), a hoofer who falls in love with a little dancing girl and aspires to big time vaudeville. Billie Moore (Violet Dunn) is the good little dancing girl whose life is just one round of vanquished temptations. They both perform at the Paradise Club owned and run by Americanised Italian Nick Verdis (Walter Armin). His resort was used by one of the rival gangs of bootleggers (preyed upon by the liquour stealing hi-jackers) whose feuds disgrace the nightlife of the city.

A scene from Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1927
A scene from Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1927

Steve Crandall (Bernard J. Nedell), the head of one of these gangs shoots dead in the back a hostile bootlegger ‘scar’ called Edwards. With great daring he ventures into the establishment kept by Verdis. In the intervals snatched from bootlegging and gun-handling, Crandall makes insidious advances to the cabaret girl Billie Moore. She is being coached in a dancing act by her partner with a ‘personality’ (and devout lover) Roy Lane, soon jealous and suspicious of the plausible bootlegger whom he tries to expose to the police as represented by the cool and non-commitial Dan McCorn (Hartley Power).

Roy after having been knocked down by Crandall is arrested by the detective and suspected of the murder of Edwards as he was trying to shoot Crandall with the latter’s weapon. However, in the end the smooth-tongued villian whose final loss of nerve and degeneration into cowardice are shown very skillfully indeed is himself shot by one of the cabaret girls who had followed Crandall, presumably as member of Edward’s gang to avenge her leader.

Theatre World stated rather obviously that the show was American in inspiration, action and location and thought that it thrilled and amused with slickness evident in the writing, production and its acting. Although they added that it was a rattling good entertainment, they thought it ‘neither great nor good.’ The Stage however, thought it ‘one of the best and most thrilling of present American importations.’

Some of the players remained in London and became popular most notable among them was Ben Weldon, who played Joe.

Universal adapted the play for the screen and Broadway, the film, directed by Pal Fejos, was released in May 1929 starring Glenn Tyron, Evelyn Brent, Merna Kennedy, Thomas E. Jackson, Robert Ellis and many others.

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent



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